Vamshidhar Kommineni

April 25, 2007

Book review: The Box (How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger)

Filed under: Books — Vamshi @ 6:55 am

3 stars

Ever looked at a modern city’s ports and wondered about those gigantic cranes or the logistics chain that they were a part of? Or wondered how we went from a world of stevedores/longshoremen and manual unloading to the gigantic container ships and nearly automated loading and unloading? Or better yet, how goods get so cheaply from the world’s manufacturing facilities in China to the US, Europe and other places?

These are the questions the book addresses. It does so by focusing on the humble containers at the root of all this process and retelling their history over the last 50 years or so. If we didn’t have a global standard for shipping container sizes, none of the infrastructure built around them like container ships, cranes, ports, rail cars, truck trailers and others would be possible.

The book shapes the story of the shipping container around one man Malcolm McLean who is widely regarded as the person who first used containers and built a shipping business around them. The book does a good job of detailing the history of the container including the initial struggles, the opposition of the longshoremen’s labor unions and the rise and fall of ports as they bet (or did not bet) on the economies of scale that were brought about by the container. One does get a sense by reading the book of how much of our global economy we owe to the changes brought about by containers.

So why only 3 stars? For one, I think the subject matter is interesting only to a narrow cross section of the population. Second, the book does drag quite a bit in places. The author does a great job of making the matter accessible, but he could have gone further. A certain pedantic nature does creep into the book and I felt some of the material could have been edited out of the book to trade off readability at the cost of scholarly completeness.

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December 27, 2006

Book Review: Next

Filed under: Books — Vamshi @ 7:46 pm

2 stars

Great concept but very flawed execution is my one line summary.

At this point, I pretty much read Crichton and Grisham out of force of habit than anything else. Both authors make good reading for a flight or an afternoon of vegetating on the couch. I bought the book on impulse to do the latter since I’m taking a few days off from work. I used to think that Crichton was better because he at least introduced a new concept in every book rather than the same legal drama rehashed like Grisham. The quality of writing in this book is making me rethink that.

What’s good about this book is the concept of dealing with genetics, particularly genetic patents, ownership of tissue cultures and the general corruption of the scientific community by corporate interests. Crichton has definitely done his research as indicated by the decent Bibliography. Unfortunately, the bibliography and the Author’s note at the end are the best parts of the book.

The actual plot is a mish mash involving too many characters, none of them with enough character development. Characters like the rich billionaire who brings the transgenic parrot to the US are completely besides the point and randomly strewn throughout the book. Crichton wants to write a thriller, but can’t focus enough for it to actually be gripping. And he can’t resist the temptation to drop every reference around the subject into a contrived little vignette or story in the middle of the book. Where’s a good editor when you need one?

The other thing that really annoyed me was the length of each chapter and the amount of context switches involved. The 415 pages are split into 95 chapters and a prologue. I’m pretty sure the prologue at 16 pages is the longest chapter in the book (though I didn’t have the patience to go back and look through each chapter). Does Crichton think this is avant garde writing at its best? Or does he imagine that in our ADD age, the audience needs to be context switched every 2-4 pages or they won’t finish reading the book?

Even at his worst, Crichton is somewhat readable, which is why the book still gets 2 stars. But if you want to read his best work, pick up his non-fiction works, Case of Need and Travels for thoughtful, analytical books by an author who could write entertaining books while still being clear and readable. Sadly, it seems Crichton has forgotten (or has no need for) those skills.

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December 3, 2006

Book Review: The Best Software Writing I

Filed under: Books — Vamshi @ 11:57 pm

4 stars (if you’re interested in software)

Book Cover IllustrationWell, I guess this is my first book review, mostly because I have to return the book to the Microsoft library tomorrow. It’s a collection of essays that I read over the last few weeks so I actually need to refer to it to write my review.

As an aside, Microsoft has an excellent library for employees, where they have good books (software, business, career, etc.), magazines (the regular popular ones like the Economist, Time, etc.) and online resources (IEEE Explore, Factiva, WSJ, etc.). Best of all, the library is self service and open 24 hours for browsing or borrowing. The only downside, but probably a necessary one is their recall policy. In order to get books out of the grubby hands of serial borrowers like me, they recall the book after 6 weeks with two emails about 10 days part and then a third email which copies your boss. At which point, my exasperated boss has to trudge over for the nth time and say "Return the damn book, for crying out loud" :).

If you don’t want to wade through the rest of this post, you will definitely find at least a few interesting articles if you do anything related to computer science and particularly CS as applied in software companies. All the articles in the book are available online and linked below so you can pick and choose what to read. I’m looking forward to the next compilation of essays.

Thanks to this chap, I don’t have to link to the articles in the book that are available online and will happily plagiarize from that site. If the links go dead, at least the articles are preserved for posterity in the book. And I would still buy or borrow the book for Joel’s notes as well as the ease of reading the dead tree version. Indented notes below are mine:

  • Ken Arnold – Style Is Substance 
    • Good article suggesting that coding style should be enforced through the language and that white space should matter (ala Python).
  • Leon Bambrick – Award for the Silliest User Interface: Windows Search
    • A one page comic on why Windows Search (in XP) sucks. I agree. The search functionality in Vista is much better :).
  • Michael Bean – The Pitfalls of Outsourcing Programmers
    • A great article on why any company shouldn’t outsource it’s core competency (in the case of a software company, outsourcing software development). Of course global development teams are a different idea and shouldn’t be clubbed together with simple outsourcing.
  • Rory Blyth – Excel as a Database
    • Funny comic on how people end up with crazy Excel spreadsheets. I’ve been subject to the receiving end of some of these spreadsheets as well
  • Adam Bosworth – ICSOC04 Talk
    • On the virtues of keeping things simple in the design of "Web 2.0" software. Adam is always fun to read and this talk is no exception. Sadly, it seems like he hasn’t written anything new on his blog for about a year now (unless I can’t find where he moved his blog to).
  • Danah Boyd – Autistic Social Software
  • Raymond Chen – Why Not Just Block the Apps That Rely on Undocumented Behavior?
    • The one and only Raymond Chen on why app compat matters to Microsoft. Good read. I was fortunate enough to work under the dev manager (Cornel Lupu) who came up with the notion and implementation of shims (a mostly internal technology to ensure app compat in an elegant way), so I can certainly appreciate it.
  • Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi – Kicking the Llama
    • You have to see the comic to appreciate it :)
  • Cory Doctorow – Save Canada’s Internet from WIPO
  • ea_spouse – EA: The Human Story
    • This article has been much discussed and quoted and possibly even led to some changes at EA (though I wouldn’t know). A human and family perspective and a good lesson on why you shouldn’t burn out your best people by putting them in crunch mode all the time.
  • Bruce Eckel – Strong Typing vs. Strong Testing
    • Why lazy type checking is not such a bad thing and good unit tests and automation matter much more
  • Paul Ford – Processing Processing
    • Good read. Hard to describe the article, but a good read nevertheless
  • Paul Graham – Great Hackers
    • Paul Graham is a really good writer and I enjoyed reading most of the articles on his site. This essay is about great hackers, how to recognize them, how to nourish them, etc.
  • John Gruber – The Location Field is the New Command Line
    • Thoughts on why the web as an application environment (software as a service to use the current buzzwords to describe it) is becoming popular.
  • Gregor Hohpe – Starbucks Does Not Use Two-Phase Commit
    • A fun little article comparing the Starbucks order process to software concepts
  • Ron Jeffries – Passion
  • Eric Johnson – C++ — The Forgotten Trojan Horse
    • A great read on how C++ conquered C with nary a fight.
  • Eric Lippert – How Many Microsoft Employees Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?
    • A good read on what it takes to ship (vs code) a "simple feature". The other takes on the problem that Eric links to are also good reads
  • Michael "Rands" Lopp – What to do when you’re screwed
    • A really good article from a good writer on some of the perils and lessons of life as a software dev manager.
  • Larry Osterman – Larry’s Rules of Software Engineering #2: Measuring Testers by Test Metrics Doesn’t
    • Our very own Larry Osterman. I couldn’t agree more on the post and I’ve sadly seen evidence of it as well. Good testers are worth their weight in gold. Do not weigh them down with stupid metrics that are easy to game as well as being besides the point of shipping quality software
  • Mary Poppendieck – Team Compensation (pdf)
    • Some interesting thoughts on compensation for engineers, particularly the ills of ranking software engineers on a curve. This has been a topic of much debate at Microsoft and other places over the last year or so, and remains a very relevant issue.
  • Rick Schaut – Mac Word 6.0
  • Clay Shirky – A Group is its Own Worst Enemy
  • Clay Shirky – Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software
    • Good articles on desiring social software. The first one in particular is interesting.
  • Eric Sink – Closing the Gap Part 1, Part 2
  • Eric Sink – Hazards of Hiring
    • Eric is another good write that I’ll have to start reading. His articles above about small ISVs and issues related to hiring people in small companies are very good. I like his definitions of "The Sales Guy" and programmers vs developers (though I tend to think of the latter as developers vs engineers, since by default everyone who writes code at Microsoft is titled a developer)
  • Aaron Swartz – PowerPoint Remix
    • A humorous take on why PowerPoint is bad. I wholeheartedly agree that PowerPoint is misused many millions of times a day. It’s worth reading this Edward Tufte deconstruction as well. I’m curious enough that I ordered Tufte’s essay on the issue.
  • why the lucky stiff – A Quick (and Hopefully Painless) Ride Through Ruby (with Cartoon Foxes)
    • I don’t know much about Ruby as a programming language, but the article was certainly a fun way to a learn a bit about. The cartoons are priceless.

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November 26, 2006

Book Reviews

Filed under: Books — Vamshi @ 11:00 am

Glancing over the posts I’ve made over the last couple of months, I seem to be getting decent coverage of my interest in technology and movies. However, I don’t have any coverage of the hobbies nearest and dearest to my heart, reading and photography. The lack of photography posts is out of sheer laziness and lack of a good digital workflow which I’m trying to remedy (the workflow, the laziness is pretty much terminal). Books I was holding back on because I wasn’t sure how they would fit in to the site and what form the reviews would take. I think I’ve made up my mind and want to use this to lay out my review methodology similar to the Movie Review intro.

Why read books?

That might seem like an odd or stupid question, but is probably relevant given how little people read in our society today. I’ve been guilty of this as well when things get busy at work. We don’t really want to put aside a few hours to read a good book. I’ve heard arguments ranging from "I get all my information from the net, why should I read?" to "It’s not a productive use of my time". So here is my personal list about why I read books:

  • Because books are a medium that can transport you to a world of your own imagination. Books have the power to impact, the power to heal, the power to make us laugh or just to escape for a few hours
  • Because I’m rarely as happy as when I’m cuddled up with a good book
  • Because I’ve always read books for relaxation since I was a kid. I guess it’s one of many things I have to thank my parents for
  • Because I gain knowledge from them. That’s an obvious one, but it’s hard to imagine that before the printing press, books were really expensive and reading and education were the realm of the rich. 
  • Because I gain perspective from them. Other than the factual knowledge based books, it is very illuminating to read the perspectives of others such as opinion based works, biographies, etc. Perspective can really only be gained from observation/doing and reading in my opinion, and the latter is a valuable complement to the former

Why review books?

  • For me to more easily keep track of what books I’ve read and what my opinion on them was
  • To more easily offer recommendations of what to read to my friends, something I tend to do often (whether it’s solicited or not :)
  • To practice my writing and outlining skills

How will the books be reviewed?

The reviews will range from short 1-2 paragraph summaries to longer 1 page outlines of the book. I’ll default to the 5 stars used by Amazon so the reviews can easily transfer there. My assignment of the stars (Amazon’s in brackets) is as follows:

  • 0 stars – Reading this book will lower your IQ, I guarantee it (Really, really hated it)
  • 1 star   – Reading this book will kill as many brain cells as drinking a case of beer (Hated it)
  • 2 stars – Meh…Read it if you have too much spare time on your hands (Don’t like it)
  • 3 stars – Readable, and you should consider reading it if the subject/plot interests you (It’s OK)
  • 4 stars – Definitely read this book at some point (I like it)
  • 5 stars – Run, don’t walk (preferably to your nearest Indie bookstore, but Amazon will do in a pinch) and buy the book. You will cherish it (I love it)

I don’t anticipate handing out too many 0 star reviews, but we’ll see :).

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